What are stem cells?

Most cells in the body can only carry out very specific roles and are called specialised cells. Stem cells are different because they possess two unique features; the ability to make many copies of themselves (self-renewal), and to produce specialised cells (differentiation).

Stem cell therapy is any treatment that uses or targets stem cells. This is usually to help replace or repair damaged cells or tissues, but can also be used to prevent damage from happening in the first place.

Researchers believe that stem cells may, one day, be used to treat MS, but research into stem cells is still at the very early stages and there are currently no approved stem cell therapies for MS.

International consensus

In May 2010, an international consensus on the future of stem cell transplantation research for people with MS was published, paving the way for more coordinated global research efforts and, potentially, for better and quicker patient access to stem cell clinical trials.

New guidelines, written by international MS researchers and MS societies from around the world, spell out hope for the future of MS stem cell research and debunk myths about stem cell clinics which claim to cure MS.

The guidelines are the result of a meeting held in London in May 2009 organised by the MS organisations in the UK and USA, and supported by the MS International Federation and the MS organisations of Italy, France and Australia.

Stem cell research in MS

Autologous Hematopoietic Stem Cell Transplantation (AHSCT)

Hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs) are a type of adult stem cell made in the bone marrow, which have the ability to produce the different cells found in the blood. Although only trialled in a small number of people so far, AHSCT has shown some success, particularly in aggressive forms of MS. Read more here.

Mesenchymal Stem Cell Transplantation

Mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) are found in many parts of the body and are usually taken from bone marrow, skin and fat tissue. They can produce many different types of cells, including muscle and cartilage, and there is some evidence to suggest they might help promote remyelination and have a positive effect on the immune system.

A number of pilot, or small-scale studies have investigated the safety of isolating, growing and re-injecting someone’s own MSCs. These studies have highlighted a number of minor side-effects, and have revealed some promising early results. One such study is the MESEMS study, which is supported and part funded by MSIF.

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